O’Mahony to Maguire – Kilkenny’s Soccer Pioneers

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With Sean Maguire named in the Republic of Ireland squad for the upcoming crucial World Cup qualifiers, if the young Kilkenny man sees game time, he’ll represent a major milestone for the game in his native county. Here, Cian Manning tells the tale of Matt O’Mahoney, Kilkenny’s original footballing flag-bearer.

Born in Mullinavat, meaning the ‘Mill of the Stick’, on 19th January 1913, Matthew Augustine O’Mahoney’s sporting exploits were very different to most inhabitants of Kilkenny. The year of the enactment of the Act of Union creating the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the population of Mullinavat stood at 158 and reached 531 in the census seventy years later. ‘Tory Hill’ overshadows the townland and acts as a natural landmark for the town. Rather than hurling or boxing for which the Marble County has had many representatives and much success, O’Mahoney’s sport of choice was soccer. In the same year as his birth, the town entered a hurling team in the Junior Championship of Kilkenny for the first time having previously preferred the other Gaelic code of football. A regular Irish town in a county whose devotion was to one sport would surely have made O’Mahony’s decision all the harder and even more unique in the circumstances.

Image: nifootball.blogspot.com

Image: nifootball.blogspot.com

His career began in earnest with Liverpool in 1933; but sadly his move there coincided with a decline in the club’s fortunes as they slid down the table losing their best players and failing to attract adequate replacements. O’Mahoney time on Merseyside saw limited playing opportunities with spells at New Brighton and Holylake taken in before moving to Southport the following season. From here on his footballing pedigree was on the rise, a change to First Division Wolverhampton Wanderers led to a £175 move to Bristol Rovers in 1935 where he became a fan favourite at half-back. His performances caught the attention of local rivals Bristol City who offered a transfer of £750 for his services which was rejected by the Rovers board. His time in Bristol saw him make over 100 appearances. The club’s only major trophy during the inter-war years was a Division 3 (South) Cup victory over Watford. The match was notable as the game was played at the neutral venue of the Old Den as neither team agreed to a coin toss for home advantage. The period also saw Rovers suffer a record 12-0 defeat to Luton in 1936.

International recognition soon followed, his first cap coming for Ireland in 1938 against Czechoslovakia which ended in a 2-2 draw. O’Mahoney earned five more caps and had the distinction of being a dual international having also played for an IFA XI (Northern Ireland) against Scotland in the prestigious British Home Championships, losing by two goals to nil. What is remarkable is that just five days after the Scotland match he swapped the IFA jersey for the FAI in a 3-2 victory over Poland at Dalymount Park.

O’Mahoney also became the first FAI international to travel by plane for a home fixture against Switzerland in 1938, in the 1930s the popular means of transport being ferry and train. He arrived in Dublin just over an hour before kick-off, but in time to help in a 4-0 victory. Perhaps as a Kilkenny man he could be seen as both a soccer prodigy andaviation pioneer for the county.

Matt O’Mahoney’s fine form at this time earned him a transfer to Ipswich Town (for £600). The ‘Tractor Boys’ were elected to the Football League in 1938 instead of Gillingham. Sadly the outbreak of the Second World War not only stymied his club but also his international career. A 1-1 draw against rivals Norwich City was the club’s last competitive game before the fighting. The war years saw guest appearances (a regular occurrence during the period with no fixed leagues and games, players had to seek playing time with other teams) for clubs such as both Bristol sides Rovers and City, Rochdale and Tranmere Rovers. Upon the cessation of hostilities in Europe, O’Mahoney was the first choice centre-back for Ipswich and would go on to play ninety-seven games for the club.  

His soccer career finished in 1949 with a brief spell as manager of Yarmouth Town. From there, it appears he had little interaction with the game until his death on the 25th January 1992. Though he has little silverware to match that of the Kilkenny hurlers, perhaps his main achievement is his uniqueness in being a professional sportsperson and having played at an international level.

From 1985 to 2008, his home county had a League of Ireland side in EMFA/Kilkenny City while junior soccer is strong as evidenced by Evergreen’s run in the FAI Junior Cup and Kilkenny schools have captured national honours in recent times. In the national league itself numerous players from the county have graced teams with the likes of Davy Mulcahy, Jimmy Keohane, and Gavin Holohan continuing to fly the black and amber flag now that Sean Maguire has crossed the Irish Sea to Preston. There have been numerous junior internationals over the years while the likes of hurling great Michael Walsh and former Sunderland player Michael Reddy were capped at underage level for the Republic of Ireland. Now Named in Martin O’Neill’s provisional senior squad, international game time for Maguire would represent a massive achievement for Kilkenny soccer.

It would no doubt have brought a smile to another Irish player. Over a hundred years since his birth and now twenty-five years since his death, perhaps now is the perfect time for Matt O’Mahoney to be suitably remembered.

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